Based on a long series of conversations with Enrico Rotelli, Passo dopo passo (Step After Step) is Carla Fracci telling her story in her own words. From a simple childhood during the war to the triumphs with the American Ballet Theatre and beyond: it is a fascinating journey.
Rotelli has divided the autobiography into short chapters – Rudy, London Festival Ballet, Swanhilda – which gives the book a fast pace. For those who have followed the career of La Fracci in other books or interviews, some of this material will be familiar: daughter of a tram driver, marriage to Visconti’s assistant, birth of her son Francesco, Nureyev… but here there are lots of new nuggets to be found.
Before I go any further, I should come clean as I am mentioned in the book, and had a minor role in its creation, but when there is a conflict of interest and I don’t like a performance, a cd, a production, or a video, I choose not to write about it… after all, friends are friends. But here there was no doubt as Step After Step (only in Italian as I write) is a good read. My only quibble would be that sometimes I hear Fracci’s voice, sometimes it seems to be the precise clarifications of her husband, Beppe Menegatti, and occasionally that of Rotelli as he explains the stories of the ballets. This, however, is maybe inevitable for a book aimed not only at ballet fans. Fracci is a household name; even those who have never seen a ballet know her. Just glance at YouTube to see how many clips of people trying to dance – and not even classical dance – are labelled with ‘Carla Fracci’. So this book is a little about life, a little about showbiz, and a lot about ballet.
Fracci is good with backstage glimpses. Having had such a long career these recollections go way back. She remembers Maria Callas when La Scala took La Sonnambula to the Edinburgh Festival in 1957:
Backstage, she was often wrapped in large silk scarves, thin with huge dark eyes, she looked like a mouse, or a chick thrown out of its nest. She always had such cold hands which she would put under the hot water tap: a great artist who was a victim of tension as we all are.
She also explains her approach to dancing, and especially interpretation which is of utmost importance to her. When she danced Swanhilda in Coppélia with the American Ballet Theatre she writes,
Although you can let yourself go with the humour, it is necessary to preserve an equilibrium. I didn’t like it when the ballerina who was in the other cast would wink at the audience; it jarred. Certainly everyone laughed, but it doesn’t seem right to indulge an audience in this way.
I love finding the right balance, and I tried to find comedy based on truth, and not contrived situations. When a dancer exaggerates a little it is vital to return immediately on the right path: style and detail is essential. Erik Bruhn, my partner, agreed, and he was marvellous: when I adjusted his tie he pawed the floor like a little horse, and the Metropolitan collapsed in laughter.
Fracci obviously mentions all her most important colleagues, and certainly doesn’t hold back punches when talking about Rudolf Nureyev:
Dancing with Rudy was, in itself, a challenge: a great dancer and choreographer but also a very difficult man, competitive, eccentric, fickle, unpredictable, moody, temperamental, sometimes so awful as to behave badly onstage with those who were dancing with him.
He loved putting his partners to the test. It was necessary to be stronger than he was and to come out victorious, if this wasn’t the case he would crush you, annihilate you.
In the late 80s, the Rai television organised a worldwide broadcast from Mantova with ballet and opera as well as modern dance and music. Fracci was with Nureyev, Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev had arrived from Russia, and Dame Margot Fonteyn was the star of the evening. Nureyev hadn’t seen Vasiliev for fifteen years and the meeting was emotional, yet when Fracci’s husband, the director Beppe Menegatti, explained to the dancers his idea for the final lineup where the two men would go and collect Fonteyn to bring her to the centre of the stage, things changed:
Rudy jumped up on the table and stamped his feet as though trying to crush the head of Vladimir, who remained frozen stiff in front of him. He then jumped down and stormed out. He had no intention of sharing the stage with Vladimir.
Arguments continued for the next few hours, but it was Fonteyn who saved the day,
She went to Beppe and said, “You know he’s difficult, but he lives with a constant sense of desperation… Vladimir reminds him of home, of his mother. It’s as though he’s an adolescent; just let him get it out of his system.” Margot was an exquisite human being with an unending sensibility… With all the ups and downs, the truth was that Rudy and Margot loved each other deeply.
Nureyev was a very important presence in her career, but Margot Fonteyn was an inspiration from when, as a girl, she played a page with a mandolin in a Sleeping Beauty with Fonteyn at La Scala. She remembers how, after the first act, Frederick Ashton arrived on stage to correct the position of Fonteyn’s little finger which he thought was held too high and too straight.
I realised the importance of having a maestro follow and correct you, and how that sort of teaching is essential.
Fracci considers Fonteyn her ‘spiritual mother’. In July 1981, when the La Scala company toured to the States for the first time, bringing Nureyev’s version of Romeo and Juliet, Fracci and Nureyev played the doomed pair, and Dame Margot was Lady Capulet.
Carla Fracci is greatly respected for her interpretations and indeed she has worked also as an actress, without a step of dance, in film and on television. She immerses herself in the characters she plays,
When I dance I am removed from myself. I’m no longer Carla Fracci but Juliet, Giselle, Cinderella… And the emotion changes each night, this happens to me as it does to the audience, because we’re human and can’t always be the same. My performance changes according to how I feel, how my partner inspires me, the music and the audience.
But what would I be on stage if I wasn’t loved offstage, if I didn’t live life, if I wasn’t touched by emotions, fears, hopes and delusions? I am often told that my way of dancing moves the audience, and this is the compliment I like the best. If I can move the public it means that I myself am moved: a perfect technique isn’t enough to make a great dancer.
Her second act tutu for Giselle was legendary, some saying that the lightness and ethereal quality of her dancing were partly due to the tutu. Gelsey Kirkland confessed to cutting off a piece of the gauze so she could have an identical copy, and Violette Verdy was also apparently taken with it. It was a gauze from Italy made from silk, very fine and very floaty! However, before a performance with ABT she found that her tutu had shrunk; wardrobe had shoved it in the washing machine thinking that it was nylon like the others. Fracci went on with a nylon tutu… Verdy was in the audience.
Verdy came onstage saying, “Ah, that was marvellous…. Carla what lightness! You were wonderful!” I turned, and replied with great satisfaction, “And it wasn’t with my silk tutu”.
A fact of which Carla Fracci is especially proud is having brought ballet into remote town squares, circus tents and the cut-off regions of the Italian peninsula. She felt it her duty, and it proved to be a good investment for the future, creating a mass of faithful fans who have followed her through the years. Touring in this way isn’t always easy however. She recounts several amusing episodes, including one in Paestum, with its three glorious Greek temples, in the south of Italy.
The company arrived for a Romeo and Juliet, and found a stage that had been constructed in the open, with rows of seats, and nothing else. The stage was covered in shiny linoleum, there was nowhere to change or prepare, and in the open air under the summer sun the heat was extreme. However, a little Coca-Cola resolved the slippery stage problem, and council workers arrived with voting booths which served as makeshift dressing rooms. The sun went down, and the ballet started. The version that Fracci was dancing starts with the dead body of Juliet being carried aloft during her funeral, then the rest of the ballet is seen in flashback. As she was being carried from her voting booth to the stage she heard the dancers holding her say “Excuse me, excuse me please…”, and opening her eyes a little she saw that as there were not enough seats for everybody, the audience was sitting all around the sides of the stage, blocking their way.
It can be dangerous certainly, but I like that. I don’t want that my work is only seen by an élite… I like the fact that anyone who wants to can come along…. Art should be for everyone.
Carla Fracci is now moving towards her eightieth birthday.
We are born and we die. It’s inevitable. We begin our career and we know that it will end. Few continue to work into old age; it depends on how you look after yourself, your character, your personality… I like to eat a slice of salami, drink a glass of wine, and keep things tidy and well ordered. I like living, and I am afraid to leave my loved ones and not be able to satisfy my curiosity as to what sort of life my grandchildren will have.
At this moment I don’t have a great desire to return to the stage, but I don’t rule it out if there is a role suitable for me.
Since the book was published she has appeared in two productions at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples and the Teatro Politeama Greco in Lecce!
I have had the fortune to know the world of dance and be part of it. Through this I have been able to celebrate the movements of my soul. Nature gave me a slim body, a pleasing neck and shoulders, and a youthful smile… I was was able to improve my speed, my technique and the lines of my legs; on stage I have been both a butterfly and a tiger, sweet and passionate, childlike and aggressive. My life has been surrounded by poetry, wonderful music, and many maestri both on and off stage who have never left me feeling alone.
The smile of that little girl in the tutu tells you everything I’ve said here, and everything that I will never say, and maybe things that I don’t even know. I’d like all children to have my fortune and the strength to not fall by the wayside. That little girl’s smile I’ll see forever on the lips of my son Francesco.
Passo dopo passo. La mia storia
by Carla Fracci with Enrico Rotelli
Hardback edition € 18 – Kindle € 9,99
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.